For the first time this season Sir John Kirwan's sunny disposition turned decidedly dark as his free-falling Blues failed to heed the lessons of a week earlier and plunged to their second straight Super Rugby defeat.
The result was a costly 20-13 home loss to the Brumbies that puts a serious dent in the Blues' playoff hopes and revives the Australian team's campaign after back-to-back losses of their own.
A shocking first 40 minutes on a wintry old night at Eden Park dug the Blues a hole they just could not climb out of, prompting Kirwan to deliver a halftime tune-up that left his players in no doubt as to their coach's displeasure.
The Blues had failed to play the percentage and territory game their coach had promised was the big lesson out of their defeat to the Crusaders a week earlier in similar conditions. And they paid a price with a 0-14 halftime deficit.
"We need to find that balance," said Kirwan of the need for a change in tactics in wet weather. "If it's raining are we going try go through 10 or 12 rucks . . . if we can't we need to find our kicking solutions and play the right ends of the field. They're key learnings the boys have taken on board."
Or not. The Blues produced probably their worst 40 minutes of the season in the first spell, failing to adapt to the rain and strong wind, and in the end left themselves with just too much to do against a side which plays the percentage game much, much better.
Luke Braid put in a big performance for the Blues, and their all-star backline, led by Rene Ranger, got things rolling in the second half. But they were always playing catchup. It was a poor first 40 minutes from a Blues team that seemed to have no idea how best to go about things in the wintry conditions. In the end, given their high error-rate and succession of gormless decisions, the home side was probably fortunate to trail 0-14 in a spell dominated almost throughout by the Brumbies.
Any time the Blues looked like building pressure on the Australians, they coughed up errors that allowed the Brumbies to march back upfield and collect points on a regular enough basis to build a handy halftime lead.
There was only one try in the first 40, Brumbies halfback Nic White striking with a nice piece of opportunism just past the midway point, but three Christian Lealiifano penalties saw the Brumbies edge out to a lead they richly deserved.
White's try was typical of the Blues' woes in the opening 40 as wing George Moala failed to deal with a high kick - the principal tactic adopted by both sides - and when the ball popped loose, the halfback was able to toe through and show excellent skills to slide over from a half-dozen metres out.
The Brumbies had several other chances to add to their try tally as the Blues kept presenting them with opportunities in their own red zone, but to their credit the home side's defensive line was solid when it needed to be.
But with a lineout that was in disarray, a scrum under the cosh and some very poor ball security in the tackle, there was a lot the Blues had to correct if they were going to haul in the visitors, even with that strong wind at their back.
By the looks of Kirwan's halftime team talk, this was made clear to his team in no uncertain terms.
And the Blues responded fairly well, rattling off 10 straight points in the first quarter of an hour, with Ranger's 53rd-minute try a ripper. Finally the Kiwi side retained some possession and after Ranger had figured in a strong buildup, Piri Weepu jinked through a gap and showed superb strength to drag a couple of would-be tacklers over the line from 10 metres out.
A fourth Lealiifano penalty restored a little momentum for the Brumbies, before a Baden Kerr three-pointer got the Blues back within four heading into the final 10 minutes. But from there the Brumbies hit closeout mode, with Lealiifano's last penalty putting the seal on a quality victory.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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